Management: Accept Feedback to Clear Your Blindspots

Pair of clouded eyes

I am working with an organization that has many teams that report up through a couple of layers of management. The teams happen to be contracted, though for other organizations I have not seen it make a difference. The management, particularly the higher level of this management, does not seek feedback for the decisions they make or that they are making.

If you are a manager, it is important for you to get feedback on the options you have for the decisions at hand. This will help you know if other options can be considered and to understand the impact of the decisions you are making. The amount and type of feedback you request is important. Without this feedback, you may be making decisions in the blind. When you make them without seeking feedback, you are missing information on whether your choices will have a positive or negative impact on the people doing the work.

Before we dive into an example, let’s look at a long-standing model of people and knowledge about interpersonal awareness. The model displayed below is called the Johari window. It was first presented in a paper in 1955, but was really fleshed out further in a book called Of Human Interaction by Joseph Luft in 1969.

The Johari Window*

There are things you and others know about you; this is the open area. You know some things about yourself, but others don’t. This is the hidden area. You can choose to disclose what you want. There are areas unknown to both you and others, this is the unknown area and shared discovery is how they become known. The important area for this post is the blind area. This is an area others can see about you; they know the information AND you don’t. The way you discover this is through feedback.

This feedback could be solicited (you ask for it) or unsolicited (you didn’t). I don’t recommend anyone give unsolicited feedback; it’s best to ask if someone is interested in receiving it.

As a manager, you need to be open to receiving and asking for feedback from others (yes including people that report to you) for several reasons:

  1. It models this behavior for others; if you would like people open to receiving feedback from you, then you need to lead by example.
  2. This is a mechanism in how you determine how well you are doing as a manager. Getting regular feedback, both formally and informally, from above, below, and your peers gives you a complete picture.
  3. This is also how you can find out if your decisions will impact others negatively. If these happen to be the people that report to you, it may reflect negatively on your performance. You can choose to learn about these negative impacts as you consider the options for decisions or after you made a decision and hear about it from a different path (like your boss or a customer).

I am going to run through a short example of why it is important to ask for feedback on decisions. This is an extremely simple example.

Imagine you have 20 or so teams that suddenly started going remote due to COVID-19. The week after everyone went remote you held an all-hands meeting of all your staff and contractors (so everyone involved in those 20 or so teams and then some) and you gave them some information about going remote and wanting to help create an environment of helping people work together.

It went well enough and so you decide you want have another at some point. 6 1/2 weeks pass and so you schedule the next one in the 3 days. Now remember, everyone reports to you. Teams scramble to accommodate this decree; it has really disrupted what they now have as work rhythms, something they had not acquired one week into going all remote. At that earlier point in time, it was much less of a disruption.

What may have happened if you had for some feedback on this plan from team members with interest in actually learning the impact? It most likely would have revealed it would interfere with planned work. Does this mean you should abandon the idea of having an all-hands? Not at all. What it does do though is open up considerations of when you could schedule it and how much lead-time would allow teams to fit this into their plans more readily.

This all-hands is a simple example. Is the negative impact unrecoverable? Not at all… But the signals it sends are probably worse. It signals that being present to listen to you as the ‘boss’ is more important than the actual work (which was free to being disrupted). This can lower morale. Given you have some layers of management between you and the teams, it also says it is OK for them to do the same. Hmmm… now this effect is multiplying. Most likely you were blind to these effects.

And depending on context how many other seemingly simple decisions are made without soliciting feedback on them before they are made?

Some will claim well ‘Inspect and Adapt’ that is the agile way… That may be true and I would also say that more important in this circumstance is building the project around a motivated team and supporting them. Sincerely reaching out for feedback on this decision (even if you still end up making the same decision) in itself helps reduce the deflated motivation.

* “The Johari window, a graphic model of interpersonal awareness”. Proceedings of the western training laboratory in group development, Joseph Luft, Harrington Ingraham, 1955

Leadership in Agile Transformations: A Haiku

In keeping with my thoughts on transformation; I wrote a haiku on good leadership that is needed in Agile transformations.

Farmers cultivate

Burros make furrows in minds

More emerge to join

Can you see what leadership is happening in the above? How has leadership been happening in your organization?

 

Locking Cadences to Optimize the Whole Scaled System – Not Really…

I had a reminder through some recent comments that people view locking cadences in step as a means for optimizing the whole of the system and not for individual teams (by allowing them to choose the cadences at which they wish to deliver).  this is used to justified in the case of when you have a need for a program.  I think this is missing the point, so I am going to go through some explanations.  I really like how Jurgen Appelo has applied David Snowden’s Cynefin framework to work systems so I am going to illustrate my rationale using some of his work.

So let us start with a team:

Programs_Explained_in_Mgmt3.0_speak-1Teams are simple to understand, predominantly because of their simple structure with few people; however they are  complex in nature because we are dealing with humans.  Sometimes we can’t even predict our own behavior, much less a whole team’s.  Next, let’s think of where most policies and processes wind up…Programs_Explained_in_Mgmt3.0_speak-2Good processes (and their accompanying policies), try to add order into systems; this is particularly true of many of the scaling systems out there (SAFe, DAD, to some degree LeSS) where structure and process is imposed on the ‘program’ system in order to achieve more predictability.  Unfortunately most of these are quite complicated in nature; some have helped by providing well diagrammed (some even animated) pictures, but there is still no denying the complicated nature of their arrangements to attempt to get predictability.

This is very well intentioned, yet what happens in reality is the following:

Programs_Explained_in_Mgmt3.0_speak-3The complicated-ordered process thrown on a simple-complex team yields a complicated-complex result.  This isn’t achieving what we wanted… and we’re just talking about a single team! And if we expand this to many teams such as we would have in a program, this is the best case we can hope to achieve.  It may become complicated and chaotic as the additive results yield less predictable results. Programs_Explained_in_Mgmt3.0_speak-4So why is this happening?

It’s because we humans create complex social systems.  There’s a reason why we value individuals and interactions over processes and tools; the latter can be complicated in nature perhaps and yet they are ordered in nature, while people systems can be either simple or complicated, yet are always at best complex.  People aren’t robots, so our behavior is never entirely predictable.

And yet… we try and put systems in place that have unintended consequences, such as imposing cadences on teams to get more order (predictability) out of them.  Think about the last time you had something forced on you that you disdained; it probably had you at best working at less than motivated – it sucked the motivation out of you, so you didn’t perform as predictably as desired. And at worst case, you went and found a new job and now the team was thrown into reforming and restorming to get back to renorming and performing.

Each team and its individuals will be different, perhaps some won’t care that much about the ‘normalization’ of cadence.  But some will have deep negative impacts that will occur.

So I ask you what ‘system’ are we trying to optimize? The process or the people?  Imposing a process to de-optimize how humans perform seems to me have many potential negative longterm effects; besides losing good people or demotivating people, even if this happens to only one team out of ten, it sends a signal that people don’t control their work system at all, that any element can be changed on a whim. Basically apply the pants principle and let teams adopt as simple a process as possible, including the orchestration.  As Saint-Exupery said, simplicity is not achieved by deciding on not when there is more to add, but deciding on when there is not more to take away.

Programs_Explained_in_Mgmt3.0_speak-6 Does this mean that locking cadences can’t ever be adopted? Not at all… Facilitate teams to select a good cadence within themselves firstand then collaborate with other teams to find how to best orchestrate delivery.  This may result in lockstep cadences or perhaps a creative branching and merging strategy. This could be done during team chartering by holding a futurespective. Regular intra-team retrospectives could help teams identify when changes need to occur. Simply installing a locked cadence at the beginning may result in a sub-optimal approach as it overlooks the people part of the equation.

Calculating Joy and Fulfillment

At the Path to Agility, several of us got together and had an open discussion about what possible relationships Happiness, Joy, Purpose, and Passion had.  In attendance was Ryan Ripley, Faye Thompson, Joe Astolfi, Jeremy Willets, and Kevin Goff.  Others dropped in from time to time as well and provided some input.  Ryan kickstarted it with a premise that focusing on pursing solely creating a happy team(s) destroy longterm joy and fulfillment.  The discussions were contained in the photo of all the stickies (semi-organized into various areas):

image1

We discussed many different things, and I’ll mostly focus on my take aways and contributions.  We’re still discussing this (primarily via twitter currently), so it’s an ever evolving concept and I am not sure we’re all in agreement yet.

Happiness was felt to be a short term thing, while Joy yielded a long term gratification. I started my (useful) input showing how happiness of a team over time can be captured via a Niko-Niko calendar and that this is useful in understanding whether a team is working well together.  Ryan still said that a happy team may not be joyous, but we did at one point all seem to agree that at some point if a team had little to no happiness occurring, then it was unlikely they would feel joy.  This got me to drawing a stacked area chart; the x-axis is time and the y-axis is the amount of joy felt by the team.  The areas that add up to this happiness (which is more volatile), passion (mildly volatile), and purpose (little volatility).

I wish we had spent more time coming to some form of agreement on Passion and what it means; I defined Passion as the collective sum of the motivations I have.  I really like the CHAMPFROGS set that Jurgen Appelo has created.  I think some of the inconsistencies showing up in our Twitter convos deals with each of us having a different mental model around passion.  These passions can change some over time.

Alignment on a purpose is also very important and alignment of this purpose with my longterm passion is also very important. It’s this latter part that gives me motivation to pursue it, yet if it is a continuous unhappy environment then I will also find it difficult to stay focused. We ultimately settled into this equation, which I wrote onto the whiteboard under the advertisement for our session:

Joy_equation

This equation states that Joy is a function of the Length of Happiness I feel multiplied in the pursuit of Purpose in addition to the Passion I bring to it.  Thus if I have little time I spend feeling happy as I pursue a purpose, then I will not feel longterm Joy.  Likewise, if I have no purpose, I also get no Joy either; this because Joy is the feeling of Fulfillment we get (Joy = Fulfillment).  Lastly, it needs to be aligned with passion as if my passion would rather pursue something else, then I likewise will have little Joy.  If we bump this from an I to a We for a team or organization, it means getting alignment on purpose and passion while having a supportive environment which increases happiness.

The important aspect to me though is the role of leadership in this; when exercising leadership, our job is to discover people’s passions, help them see how they align with a collective purpose.  It also means that I want to create this supportive environment, but not pursue short term hygenic treatments to make people happy, they need to be factors that create longterm possibilities for team members to be happy.  An example of a longer term factor would be one of safety as one would find in Anzeneering. To create Joy, leaders (which in a self-organizing team can actually be any team member)  is the application of the Antimatter Principle to attend to people’s needs.

Addition (that I forgot to mention, but it was discussed and is very relevant), Tobias Mayer has an excellent post that if you attempt to encode someone’s values, you kill that person’s spirit.  This can be true even what is being imposed is happiness; this will not create longterm Joy.

Skills for a Facilitative Leader

toolbox

As folks know, I have been noodling on what a style of leadership I’ve deemed as facilitative leadership.  Some may be wondering, what skills do I need to be a facilitative leader.  I’ve given it some thought; it’s certainly not exhaustive and still may need some tweaking, but here’s some basics I’ve thought of so far…

  • An ability to engage co-workers in a manner that is both egalitarian and fruitful; co-workers includes peers, subordinates, and superiors – granted non-equal in authority people have to also release that relationship on their side to be wholly effective, suspend it if you were, but you as the facilitative leader should not be holding onto that relationship.
  • An ability to serve others and help fulfill their agenda over yours as long as it thoughtfully considers others points of view in a non-destructive manner.
  • An ability to elevate the assumptions of others in a non-threatening manner, whether it be about their agendas, intentions, or ideas.
  • An ability to humbly inquire on the path or agenda being taken to ensure it is right for the moment.

These four abilities/skills are my current essential feelings as to what is necessary for being a successful facilitative leader. There may be others. What would you add or change?

Everyone Can Be Facilitative Leaders

tree_of_diversity

One may wonder why in my Leadership Quadrant post I mentioned that there is more room for people to be leaders when based on facilitative leadership thinking.  This is explained by the two dimensions…

When leadership is based on power, this promotes hierarchical formal power relationships; only so many can report to a leader under this arrangement.  An organization may choose a flatter structure, but ultimately decision-making authority rests in appointed or elected people at the top of a pyramid structure.  Only people in these positions get to wield authority.

When directing is the preferred mode of operating, there is a limit to how many directors one can have.  So even though a Utopian Benevolent Dictatorial Leader wants to help others, there is very little room for others to lead in their viewpoint. They have a sincere belief they know what is best.

In “Becoming a Technical Leader: An Organic Problem-Solving Approach” by Gerald Weinberg, he talks about how anyone can become a leader through helping others. This is at the core of Servant Leadership and when this is done in a participative manner, it becomes facilitative in nature. Leadership derived in this manner happens irrespective of what formal structures are in place.  Everyone has expertise and can lend assistance in some area and thus at any time one can be a leader; authority is derived from people’s sustained willingness to follow.

Leaders that then get appointed or elected to some formal authority role (supervisor, manager, etc.) that were already using a facilitative leadership approach gain much more capacity to get things done; people were already willingly giving them authority, the new position just confirms that belief.  As long as the individual doesn’t switch too far to other extremes in the dimensions, they should be able to sustain this willingly given authority.

Facilitative Leadership Overview

IMG_1414

In my last post I brought up the concept of a facilitative leader; so what do facilitative leaders do and how do the effectively lead?

What facilitative leaders do

I won’t go into exhaustive details here as this itself could be several posts, however it is important to have some idea what makes a facilitative leader distinct and that is the behaviors they exhibit. We’ll discuss this as if the behaviors are in the upper right of the Leadership Quadrant.

So in this space, a facilitative leader exhibits a desire to serve others, much like a servant leader as described by Robert Greenleaf. They also are participatory in nature, thus rather than say define a plan for a group to do work towards a goal, she or he will help the people create the plan so that is theirs. Thus a facilitative leader is one who helps the group collectively solicit and select creative ideas for the work and committing to complete it.

They also help individuals cope with their ever-changing roles and responsibilities as the team organizes and executes the work. They act as outside observers and offer improvements to the group and overall organization at large. They help the group gain clarity in the goal. They lead through influence.

How facilitative leaders effectively lead

As we explored in the last post, in order to be an effective leader, particularly when using influence as your primary mechanism, one must maintain good will with those you are leading.

Will_Equation

When your actions are opposite of what you say you will do, they work against each other and your will approaches zero. Since influence is based on will, this reduces your leadership effectiveness.

Here’s a few examples, I say I have an open door policy and will listen and attend to people’s needs. If people bring these to me and I never listen, perhaps always finding ways to dismiss their needs, or I never take action when I say I will, I am undermining my will and thus my ability to influence behaviors, my primary mechanism to lead.

If on the other hand, I state I will observe where people appear to have roadblocks and help them through them, followed by attending stand-ups hearing of impediments outside a team’s control and visibly taking action on them, I gain will to get things done.

Side note: for most of this article, I called people a group, that was to emphasize two aspects – 1) this can be done in a non-team environment, particularly if you are a leader that has authority. And 2) you actually don’t need to have authority to influence folks through will; this generally not true where you are directive in nature, there you needed to have been granted authority in some manner.